Point guard or scoring threat? Smith conquers both
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- You can't teach an old dog new tricks, but aging dogs headed for the Hall of Fame know how to keep a few tricks hidden in reserve.
So maybe it shouldn't be surprising that Katie Smith, one of the best pure scorers in the history of women's basketball, is making Detroit's offense go by making sure everyone else can score.
Smith, not exactly ancient at 32, already has impeccable career credentials as a scorer. If you want objective evidence, she's got it. She is the only player who wasn't part of the WNBA at its inception to score 4,000 career points, holds the all-time record for 3-pointers and held the single-game scoring record until Diana Taurasi went off in the final week of the regular season. And with one of the quickest releases in the game and picture-perfect form, she passes any subjective tests as well.
Calling her a shooting guard is a description, not a position label.
All of which made last season's trade which brought her to Detroit after nearly seven seasons in Minnesota seem like the kind of move better suited to fantasy sports.
Sure, in theory it always sounds good to add an elite scorer to the roster, but the Shock already had a backcourt scorer in Deanna Nolan and a frontline full of players who need touches in Swin Cash, Ruth Riley and Cheryl Ford.
What they didn't have was a point guard, someone to conduct an orchestra full of first-chair talent and first-chair needs.
When the Shock rose to the top of the basketball world in 2003, becoming the first team other than Houston or Los Angeles to win a championship, that conductor was Elaine Powell. She was a role player responsible more for facilitating offense than creating it. But in averaging better than four assists per game, she allowed Nolan and Cash to create (Cash actually led the team in assists with 135 to Powell's 134 that season) through their normal attacking roles.
With Powell limited last season and Nolan continuing to emerge as a star, the offense ran through Nolan. But the result was a player who had 44 more assists than anyone else on the team but also a career-worst 100 turnovers and shooting accuracy worse than 40 percent for the second year in a row.
As explosive and athletic a player as there is in the league, Nolan seemed at times to be fighting her own aggressive instincts in favor of directing traffic. And whether that had much to do with Detroit's 16-18 record last season, it led many to question whether the Shock were doomed to repeat that frustrating mediocrity when they opened this season without adding a traditional point guard (Powell, selected in the expansion draft by Chicago, has since rejoined the roster but plays limited minutes).
As it turns out, the Shock did have their point guard. She just hid that identity behind a pretty lethal outside shot.
"It's just basically getting us into what we need to get into, handling the ball, getting the ball where it needs to be, understanding the flow of the game and when maybe not to push it and when to set up," the quick-talking Smith calmly explained in her Midwestern drawl. "But really, it's just to get people in spots and call offenses that can get people touches that need touches or get people the shots that are hot."
After years of carrying the scoring burden at Ohio State, with Columbus in the ABL and with a Minnesota franchise that struggled to surround her with playoff-caliber parts, Smith settled in as the player running the show for Detroit's star-studded lineup.
And after a 70-59 win against Connecticut in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Thursday moved the Shock to within a game of the WNBA Finals, Smith appears to be leading them down the same path as 2003.
"She's gotten comfortable at the position; she's the one that gets us into plays, you know, settle everybody down," Nolan said. "She knows the right plays to call every time so that we have mismatches when we need a basket. She brings a lot of veteran leadership."
The new role is one Smith said required more of a shift in focus than a shift in skills.
"My role before is kind of like Tweety [Nolan's nickname], you're a two-guard, you're a scorer," Smith said. "The plays are run for you, and every time you catch the ball you're looking to shoot or to create something. It's that mind-set, you're always attacking.
"As a point guard, you have to pick and choose, and you have to get people into sets. Yeah, you can get shots off anytime you want to, but that's not going to be effective for the team."
Against the Sun, Smith excelled at doing just that. In acts as simple as taking the plays from coach Bill Laimbeer while bringing the ball up court, or giving Nolan an encouraging pat on the hip after a timeout in the second quarter, Smith carried herself like someone who knows they're responsible for keeping many moving parts working together while at the same time being dependent on those parts.
Not that Smith has gone completely John Stockton while playing alongside Karl Malone's daughter.
"One of my strengths is to be able to score," Smith said. "And you've got that fine line of putting pressure on the defense and looking for your shots and also understanding the tempo and when to get into something, when to push and when not to."
She toed the line perfectly against the Sun, shooting 7-for-12 from the field, including 3-for-5 from behind the arc on her way to 17 points. And while she has taken a career-low number of field goals, she has saved her best for key moments, averaging a fraction less than 20 points per game in four games against Connecticut.
Smith's success at transitioning to a lead-guard role while remaining a scoring threat has probably had the most direct impact on Nolan. Freed up to play her attacking game and spot up for outside shots, Nolan averaged 13.8 points per game in the regular season while boosting her field-goal percentage back above 40 percent and dropping her turnovers well below 100.
"I think so," Nolan said when asked if Smith settling in has helped her game. "We have the ultimate counterpart that shoots 3 -- the best 3-point shooter in the history of the WNBA -- and that kind of helps out on the other side of the court when people are trying to lean toward her and kind of forget about me. So it helps out a lot."
Erin Phillips, taking on the assignment usually reserved for Katie Douglas, certainly wasn't forgetting about Nolan in Game 1, but she had a tough time sticking with her as Nolan posted a team-high 21 points.
"You know, Tweety has been around, and she's I don't need to give her a whole lot besides continue to attack," Smith said of the advice she lends Nolan. "The girl is a phenomenal athlete and has one of the best looking shots there is. It's just for her to keep that mind-set of attacking and really putting the pressure on at all times, and she can do that.
"I really like playing with her, she's a really easy person to communicate with. You just got to keep her going, because she's got a motor that can go for days, and we want to ride that."
All in all, Smith is having a ball by focusing on distributing the real one.
"So yeah, basically I have a hand in a little bit of everything, so it's fun, it's a lot of fun," Smith said.
But you get the feeling the real fun will come for Smith if she gets her hand on the championship trophy.Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
MORE WOMEN'S BASKETBALL HEADLINES
- Hill ends playing career, named honorary coach
- No. 1 South Carolina cruises past Hampton
- Chattanooga tops Stanford for another upset
- Class of '16 guard Sutton commits to Texas